The Bard in Berlin: Shakespeare's Sonnets Debut in Drag

By Christine Wahl in Berlin

US stage director Robert Wilson has teamed up with pop star Rufus Wainwright to bring Shakespeare's sonnets to the stage in Berlin. Debuting on Easter Sunday, this highly stylized cross-dressing version of the archetypal love poems went down a storm with the audience.

It's been 400 years since William Shakespeare published his "Sonnets" and now they are getting the Robert Wilson treatment in Berlin. The renowned American theater director's cross-dressing version of "Sonette" debuted on Easter Sunday at the Berliner Ensemble, the theater made famous by Bertolt Brecht.

The 154 sonnets that Shakespeare published in 1609 are regarded as the archetype for love poems. The first sonnets are addressed to an Adonis-like young man, the Fair Youth, while the later ones are written for the sexually appealing Dark Lady. The Rival Poet is another character, who is depicted as a competitor for both fame and patronage. The themes range from love and sex to beauty, politics and morality.

Wilson has selected 24 sonnets for his version and created a highly stylized design for each one, with lavish costumes, huge hair-dos and his trademark lighting and puppet-like choreography. The Texan director pays no head to literary theory or chronology in his version of the sonnets, but rather uses them to as a starting point for his typically surreal dreamlike worlds.

The avant-garde maestro uses Shakespearean-like gender role reversal in the cast but in his "Sonette" the women play men as well as men playing women. The 86-year-old grand dame of Berlin theater, Inge Keller, sports a gray pageboy wig and white face paint to play the bard himself. Jürgen Holtz, another doyen of Berlin theater, plays Queen Elizabeth I, while Sylvie Rohrer portrays the young poet.

The music is provided by pop star Rufus Wainwright who, unsurprisingly, has declared the sonnets timeless and whose musical accompaniment ranges from medieval Minnesang to the very contemporary electric guitar.

Wainwright has professed his reverence for both Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill, and there are echoes of their "Threepenny Opera" in some of his music for "Sonette." This is fitting perhaps, given that Wilson's version of the Brecht/Weill masterpiece is currently sold out for the foreseeable future at the Berliner Ensemble.

It looks like the "Sonette" could repeat that success for Wilson in Berlin. On Sunday the audience reacted to almost every single sonnet with rapturous applause and the evening was brought to a close by Wainwright himself coming out on stage to sing two of the sonnets before the final bow. At three hours the play may be over long but for fans of Wainwright and Wilson "all's well that ends well."

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